It was a dismal day of searching the empty lands of Anórien, but Eadric and his fellow Rohirrim scouts did not let the darkness or the emptiness oppress them, nor deter them from their duty to lord and king. Far and wide across the plains they ranged in a wide arc, meeting again at last as the day drew to a close.
There had been no sign of the sun all that long day; nevertheless, it was still apparent when evening at last approached, for the brownness in the air grew even denser as what daylight there was dimmed and grew faint. Far off in the West, at the uttermost limit of the darkness that flowed from Mordor, the sky was still faintly clear, and the glow that came with the setting of the sun could be seen beyond the edge of the shadow as it creeped ever westwards. Soon, however, even that bit of light would be extinguished, for the darkness showed no sign of halting its inexorable covering of the land. Once the sun set, the ensuing night would be dark indeed.
"What say you, my fellows?" said Eadric. "Shall we press on eastwards for a few miles more, while we have some light left? Or shall we make camp for the night, and on the morrow send our report to the lord Éomer?"
"It would be best to be thorough, perhaps, and continue a while longer," suggested Brynhere, and the others nodded their agreement. "Though we have seen no sign of evil, the further east we press, the more likely 'twill be that we come upon some sign of enemy movement."
"Such were my thoughts also," replied Eadric. "Very well, then. Let us ride while we may. The light is poor enough, but our eyes are not yet defeated by the darkness. We may still come upon something significant to report ere the sun goes down. If nothing else, we will assure ourselves of a safe camp, knowing that the lands about us are truly empty."
They rode swiftly eastwards, and were able to cover several miles before the light began to fail. Behind them, far away in the West, the sun sank towards the rim of the world and at last briefly escaped the shadows that strove to hide it. As Eadric and his men reached the top of a high hill, a shaft of bright sunlight shone out, and for a fleeting moment, the darkness drew back and the Riders could see clearly what lay before them.
On the hillside opposite the slope on which they rode, not more than a mile distant, four Men were making their way slowly on foot through the long grass. The light of the setting sun glinted redly upon mail and sword.
Thrydwulf uttered an exclamation and laid a hand to his spear, but at a sharp command from Eadric, his hand fell away.
"They are Men of Gondor!" cried Eadric.
For a moment, Boromir could not understand what he was seeing. He passed a hand over his eyes, dazzled from the light of the setting sun, which even now was growing dim and faint. But when he took his hand away, the horsemen were still there, riding towards them at a swift and steady pace.
"Riders!" he breathed.
Arthad was immediately at his side, arrow nocked and bow drawn, but he quickly lowered his weapon again when he realized who was approaching.
"Riders of Rohan!" he exclaimed.
"Are you certain?" asked Grithnir, shading his eyes against the fast-receding light. "But yes -- I see it is so. No Orc rides a horse such as these, and no ally of Sauron bears such arms or wears such armor. They are from Rohan, indeed!"
"Scouts, perhaps?" wondered Henderch. "Riding in advance of the army?"
"We shall know soon enough," replied Boromir. "They approach at speed."
They had not long to wait. With a pounding of hoofs, the horsemen rode up, and reined in their mounts as one. Four of the Riders held back, while the fifth dismounted, tossing the reins to one of his fellows.
"Well met, Men of Gondor," he said, striding forward.
Halting before Boromir, he bowed respectfully, and extended his hands palm upwards in token of friendship.
"I am Eadric, chief scout of the house of Éomer, Third Marshal of Riddermark. These men with me are my fellow scouts. We serve our lord Éomer in the Eastfold, and at his bidding, we have come to Anórien in Gondor to seek news and give report of what passes here ere Théoden King rides to Mundberg."
"I rejoice to hear what brings you to our lands," exclaimed Boromir. "But you surprise me, Eadric of Eastfold. We are strangers met by chance in the wild, and yet you speak freely to us your name and your purpose, and that of your lord, without first seeking our names or news of our business."
"Surely it is my duty to tell you all, my lord, and freely!" Eadric answered with a smile. "Are you not Men of Gondor? Do we not travel in your lands unannounced? But as it happens, I do know you, and I know it is safe to speak with you freely. We have not been introduced, but I have seen you from afar, and know you to be Boromir, son of the lord Steward Denethor of Gondor -- and the lord Boromir is a Man to be trusted!"
Even as he smiled and spoke lightly, Eadric had been observing Boromir and his men carefully, and a look of concern now replaced the smile upon his face.
"Tell me, my lord Boromir!" he asked urgently. "Why do you travel afoot in these dangerous times, with so few men to protect you? I see you are all weary and worn -- and surely you are wounded, my lord! Have you seen battle? Do you require assistance? Let us help you; we are at your service!"
Boromir bowed his head gratefully.
"I thank you, Eadric," he said warmly. "It is true, we are in some need -- it is not by choice that we travel on foot! It is a long tale, but we will share it with you gladly, if you have the time to spare from your duty to your lord."
"Our duty to our lord includes service to you, our friend and ally. I will hear your tale; there is time."
"Let us make camp then, for what light there was has almost gone, and it is time I rested."
Eadric gestured to his men, and they dismounted. Thrydwulf came forward and made to hand over the reins of Eadric's mount to him. But before Eadric could grasp them, the horse tossed its head and pulled away. Ignoring Eadric's whistle, the horse trotted straight to Boromir and after a moment's hesitation, nudged him gently with his nose and whickered softly.
Boromir stood, bemused and uncertain, but only for a moment. Reaching out slowly, he laid a light hand on the side of the horse's face.
"Is it you, my friend?" he murmured. "Surefoot? Yes! It is you!"
At the sound of the Man's voice close beside him, the horse Surefoot pressed closer, and nuzzled Boromir's face, breathing deep, long breaths which blew warmly into the Man's nose. Boromir's smile widened, and he stood quietly glad, and accepting of the horse's attention.
"So, my friend!" he chuckled when loving greetings had at last been exchanged. "I had thought never to see you again, yet here you are, returned safely from the North where you left me so precipitously -- not that I blame you! The crossing at Tharbad was more dangerous than either of us bargained for, was it not? But you have lived up to your name and what was told me when first you were given me as my steed for the journey: 'His feet always find a path.' I am grateful that it should be so!"
Boromir stroked the animal's strong neck, and was glad of the gathering night, for it hid the tears which suddenly sprang to his eyes.
"I see there is more than one tale to be told here," remarked Eadric cheerfully. "It is clear to me that you are well acquainted with our Stánfót*, and he with you. Among the horses of the Rohirrim, Stánfót -- or Surefoot, in your tongue -- is a favorite with all who have need of a swift and reliable steed, for his stride is firm and unfaltering, his heart steadfastly loyal, and he always finds the safe path."
"Yes," answered Boromir. "We know one another, and that is part of the long tale I have for you. Let us sit at our ease, and I will begin it, when I have rested."
Author's note: Stánfót literally means Stonefoot, a word put together with the help of a dictionary of Old English.
Many thanks to Ladyhawk Baggins for her invaluable input on horse behavior!